Saturday, June 28, 2014

Culture to Die For

One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  Nobody much cared for the arrogant Archduke, whose funeral was small and poorly attended.  Assassination was a gruesome if regular part of political life in the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth had been stabbed to death in 1898, the governor of Galicia shot in 1908, the governor of Croatia killed in 1912, and the vicar-general of Transylvania also assassinated in 1914.  Americans themselves had suffered the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.  British magazine Punch published a cartoon with one anarchist asking another, “What time is it by your bomb?” 
Hungry for territory, the old, rotted Hapsburg Empire fiddled for a month and then declared war on Serbia.  Five days later Germany made its declaration of war on France.  The guns of August had erupted. 
We still scratch our heads over the start of WWI: A very small number of very small men, disconnected from their people and out to prove their machismo by territorial expansion, plunged the world into catastrophe.  The aggressors believed they could win a swift war but, as George Orwell wrote, the only way to have a swift war in the 20th century was to lose it.
Culture in Battle
One acknowledged chestnut from WWI is that the technology of firepower had outstripped communications and mobility.  Wireless was available but undependable, railroads inadequate, and countless broken-down automobiles were abandoned on the sides of impassable roads.  Generals were left wielding million-man armies by dispatching riders on horseback.  By the end of 1914, this mismatch of fierce 20th-century firepower with Dark Age communications and mobility resulted in a return to that most basic of all technologies, the shovel, and the rise of trench warfare.
The other powerful lesson learned in the first year of WWI is that new ways of killing demanded that the very culture of battle needed to change, swiftly and radically. 

Culture in Business
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a talented business leader is his or her attention to their organization’s culture.
Culture is the softest of concepts and something that new managers often take for granted until things go terribly wrong.  We know to build the product, market the service, make the sales call, and forecast the cash.  But tending to an organization’s culture is often the last and hardest lesson learned.  How do we engage with customers?  How do we support one another?  What comes first when there are competing priorities?  How do we respond to failure?  How do we define success?
What do we do in those millions of moments every year when there is no “rule” covering a particular situation.
There are recent signs of recognition, including a “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (or lunch, or dinner) bumper sticker that makes the rounds periodically on the web.  There are even documented tales of woe from chastened technology leaders who failed to build culture with the same enthusiasm with which they built software.
In business, the result of antiquated or broken culture can be angry customers, lost employees, and failure.  (The VA is the most recent example of a harmful, "corrosive culture.")
In war, though, the result of broken culture can be death.   And in WWI, that’s precisely what happened: thousands of men died because leaders took an old, traditional culture onto a new battlefield.
It’s a reminder of just how powerful culture is, and how very hard it is to change.  Here are just a few examples.
Real Soldiers Don’t Hide
Up until the end of the 19th century, soldiers marched into battle dressed in colorful parade uniforms.  Some of this theater was about esprit de corps, but some of it was very practical: Soldiers had to know whom to kill (and whom not to kill) in what was inevitably close contact fighting.  Uniforms were the key.
While German soldiers wore uniforms of grey-green and British khaki at the start of WWI, the French advanced toward enemy fire in brilliant regimental costumes—the long blue overcoats, red trousers and kepis they had worn against the Prussians in 1870.  Drums and trumpets played.  One German soldier wrote, “They really look like something out of a picture book.”  
Almost all belligerents in WWI’s opening battles were led into battle by commanders with swords and white gloves, mounted on chargers.  When the 75mm gun was first introduced some officers opposed a shield screening its crew saying that soldiers must look the enemy in the face.  The result of such antiquated manliness was tragedy.  On August 22, 1914 the French army suffered casualties “on a scale never thereafter in the war surpassed by any nation in a single day; the conviction that spirit could overcome firepower created a quarter million French casualties in three weeks.
The lesson from WWI was that, for the first time, death was launched invisibly, sometimes from kilometers away.  The war would eventually become a contest between rival machine guns and artillery pieces.  By the end of the first year one officer noted, “In this war, the last word will be spoken by artillery.”  A soldier added, “The myth of the swift bayonet assault evaporates.  The first to die fall without having glimpsed the enemy.”
Real Soldiers Don’t Dig Ditches
This artifact of traditional battle culture went through a radical change in five short months.  Many soldiers were initially disgusted by the need to dig trenches; “digging into the earth was believed to be a dishonorable gesture for loyal fighters who in their heart of hearts wanted to offer themselves up to danger with their chests exposed.”  
By the end of 1914 soldiers on all sides learned that those who wished to survive had to be invisible. The spade became as important as the rifle.  Battlefields, once colorful masses of men, began to look completely barren--until a head appeared above the trenches.  Then all hell broke loose.
Leaders Tend to Figure It Out Last
One French officer refused to lie down or be afraid of Germans, walking about smoking his pipe.  “A second later he was shot dead through the head.”
A Hopeful PostScript
Broken culture is not insurmountable.  Neither is it impossible for a tone-deaf leader to remake him or herself.

Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of WWI was a 40-year-old aristocrat, someone whose privileged upbringing would undoubtedly leave him resistant to changes in battle culture.  He was described by one colleague as someone who “lacks balance and consistency [and] does not work well in harness.  I cannot imagine him conceiving a great scheme and carrying it through steadily.  He begins no end of things, threatens heads of departments with dire penalties if his plans are not carried out—then falters & delays giving a decision and drops the scheme.” 
This was the same First Lord who would resign in disgrace two years later after a disastrous military campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula Turkey.
You have just met Winston Churchill, sometimes called the “man who saved Europe,” and other times called “the most important man of the 20th century.” 
A generation later he solved the culture of war when it mattered most on the biggest stage in the world.  He is a good reminder that there is hope for each of us on our much smaller, much gentler stages.

My source material is drawn from Max Hastings’ excellent Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. If it feels like I have been unfairly harsh on the French, my apologies; Hastings makes it clear that were it not for French courage and fortitude in 1914, WWI might have turned out very differently.